One of the pervasive side-stories to the shocking on-air murders of WDBJ reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward has been the decisions news organizations have made about how to treat video and images of the actual murders. The killings, committed by former WDBJ reporter Bryce Williams (his onscreen moniker; the shooter’s real name was Vester Lee Flanagan), occurred during a live news shot, and were captured by one of the victims. What viewers of WDBJ saw at 6:45 Wednesday morning was as shocking and horrifying as anything you’re ever likely to see, but if you want to see it, here it is:
The decision whether to air a shocking murder like this took on an added dimension when it was discovered that Flanagan had uploaded his own much more graphic video of the killings, which were taken down from social media sites in fairly short order. Responses by news organizations ran the gamut, from showing edited versions of one or both, to showing stills, to refusing to show anything. The New York Daily News took heavy criticism for splashing Thursday’s front page with stills from the killer’s point of view, complete with muzzle flash:
— Montel Williams (@Montel_Williams) August 27, 2015
This subplot has taken on a life of its own now, with nauseating levels of self-congratulation from those who are somewhere to the Daily News’s right on the classiness gradient. Congratulations.
But we are all in the news business, so the question should never be if we’re going to show what happened, but how. With a lengthy and stern content warning, there’s no reason why a news program should censor the video that went out live to viewers that morning. It happened, and if someone doesn’t want to look, they can turn the channel, but there is tremendous news value to that footage. It features the image of the killer, for one thing, but it also shows the reality of this crime with cruel immediacy. Stopping the tape just short of the shooting leaves the killing up to the glorious imagination of any would-be copycat, while depriving everything that was sacrificed in that moment of the power it deserves.
In the case of the killer POV footage, the choice is less clear, but in this day and age, news organizations can make video available to viewers online, where the choice to watch is more active. However it’s treated, on the air or online-only, news organizations have the opportunity to shape the way the event is contextualized, to define the images in a responsible fashion. Hiding them away at LiveLeak just encourages their misuse.
What’s curious is that this sort of hand-wringing has been utterly absent from a slew of other murders that were caught on video, and played in their entirety by news outlets. How many times did you see Walter Scott being gunned down on your television, with nary an edit? Eric Garner was choked to death on camera, and video of his murder was so ubiquitous, it literally became elevator music for cable news panel hits:
These videos, and those of the killings of people like Tamir Rice and John Crawford, were dropped into news shows without so much as a “how do you do,” and none of the hand-wringing that attends the WDBJ shootings. That was wrong, too. In showing those killings, more care and reverence should have been shown, but in all of these cases, news organizations have a duty to do the difficult work of remaining faithful to the power of these images.
In the case of the WDBJ shootings, I suspect that some of the reticence has to do with the fact that we are journalists covering the murder of journalists. It is personal to a lot of us. But our duty is to the public, and so we should apply that same standard to every one of these stories: to present them in a manner that takes the full measure of the lives lost.